Spotlight: Dr. Paul Kjellberg, Philosophy Professor

Student Technology Liaison Samantha Woehl recently had the opportunity to interview Whittier College’s own professor of Philosophy, Dr. Paul Kjellberg, on his experience with DigLibArts and attempts to create a new program in order to explore new forms of digital pedagogy. Be sure to check out Dr. Kjellberg’s written responses to the questions down below as well!

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you study? What department do you teach in?

I studied at big universities before coming to the Philosophy Department at Whittier. Large wealthy institutions can afford to offer some exceptional opportunities. But small schools like Whittier also have things you couldn’t find anywhere else: specifically, the opportunity to think and learn as part of a community of people you know. I learned a lot of different kinds of philosophy at Yale and Stanford and Harvard, but I learned more about what philosophy means—what it can do for people—here at Whittier than I could have learned there.

What classes do you generally teach? And how did you teach them in the past?

My specialization is in Asian philosophy, specifically early Chinese philosophy. But I’ve taught a little bit of everything here: Chinese philosophy and Buddhism, ancient Greek philosophy, eighteenth and nineteenth century European philosophy, American pragmatism and even some Quaker material. I like doing a lot of different things. I used to teach primarily by lecturing but I found that students didn’t get a lot out of it. Also, as I thought about the contribution diversity makes to the education students receive at Whittier, I realized that students experience diversity not when they are listening to me but when they are talking to one another. Since then I’ve re-engineered my approach away from lectures toward structured and guided group work.

Can you share one or two examples of digital assignments/activities you’ve used in your class?

I do different things. For instance, in philosophy, it is an important moment when students say, “Wait, THAT is what he meant? Why didn’t he just say it in plain English?” That’s when you can start having a real conversation about the material. To get students to that point more quickly, in Modern Philosophy I use wikis to help groups of students collaborate on translations—“transversions,” I call them—of Descartes, Hume, and Kant into plain English. Confucius says that a teacher “reheats the past to feed the present.” So in Chinese philosophy students collaborate on commentaries, updating the ancient texts and applying them to modern life. This is what I mean by structured and guided group work.

How did it/they go? What do you like/dislike about these assignments? How’d the students feel?

I want students to think for themselves about what they should do and to judge for themselves how they have done. This is hard because students are so used to someone else be in charge. But it is our job as teachers to make ourselves unnecessary. It is a little weird for students but they seem to like it when it works.

Tell us a little bit about how you’ve worked with DigLibArts (did you receive grant funding? What did you use it for?)?

I do a lot with Moodle but am always trying to get it to do things it wasn’t exactly designed for. I started learning how to build my own web pages but my skills are still very rudimentary. So I got a DigLibArts grant this year and have used it to hire some very gifted students to work with me designing webpages to help students on the kinds of collaborative projects I just described.

Would you do it again? How would you change it if you did? What did you learn from the experience?

Oh yes. Let me describe one of my next projects. My January class on “Simplicity” combines Buddhist meditation with Quaker-style meetings in which the whole class sits in silence and anyone who wants to can stand to speak. The silence is useful in encouraging people to think seriously and listen carefully, to connect with the material and with each other. I am trying to figure out a way to make that experience available online. Facebook and Twitter are very effective in facilitating superficial communication, which is fine. I would like to develop a platform that is equally effective in promoting more deep interaction.

Do you have any tips or tricks that you’d like to share with students interested in digital assignments or faculty who are interested in experimenting pedagogically?

The trick is to give people enough freedom to put them in charge and enough guidance that they don’t feel lost. Doing that in an online environment involves both pedagogical and technical puzzles but when it works, the technology and I fade into the background and students are left working together with ideas. I would like for my classes to inspire students to challenge themselves and each other to take the liberal arts to places they have never been before, like those empty pools in Dogtown and Z-Boys. The Daoist philosopher Laozi says, “The best teachers are shadowy presences. . . . When their work is done, students say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’”